Strong Schools, Strong Communities Plan Connects West 7th Community
by Jerry Rothstein
In the three months since Superintendant Valeria Silva released her “Strong Schools, Strong Communities” strategic plan, there have been several West End concerns attracting a lot of energy and attention.
The initial decision to close Four Seasons A+ Elementary School and to expand Bridge View School into its vacated space was challenged vigorously by the Four Seasons parents — a community response that saved the program by moving it to Longfellow School and reducing it from year-round to the regular school year.
Photo: Dan Wolff, Jackie Kelly and Hans Swemle of Special Education. Credit: Jerry Rothstein
The fate of the Open School/Jefferson building was perhaps the greater challenge to the West Seventh neighborhood. Open World learning Community (OWLC) has been working to create solid neighborhood connections and has collaborated with the West Seventh/Smith Ave. Neighborhood Task Force in several initiatives. With the OWLC program both reduced from K-12 to 7-12 and moved downtown, occupancy of the building became a real concern for the neighborhood.
Marit Brock, a leader of the Smith Ave./West Seventh neighborhood Task Force, described the process: “As a neighborhood group we were trying to connect with the school administration and school board members but either did not receive a response or felt that we were only hearing talking points. The lack of useful information was causing anxiety within the neighborhood so we tried to make contact at the level of the local program supervisor to start a conversation about our future together.”
This resulted in a meeting in mid-April with representatives of the Special Education Administration. News had gotten out that Open/Jefferson would be used for some type of Special Education programs. The purpose of the meeting was to learn more about these plans, and to introduce the neighborhood and its efforts over the last two years to build a safe, dynamic and active community.
Special Education representatives Dan Wolff, Special Education Supervisor, Transition; Kristin Salava, Special Education Research Coordinator; Jackie Kelly, Special Education Liaison working out of the Department of Family Engagement and Community Partnership; and Hans Swemle, Special Education Resource Coordinator, met with Task Force members Marit and Tom Brock, Corky Newton, Sarah Gleason and John Yust for a discussion that Marit later summed up with, “I think we learned a lot of really positive things about the plans for the future,” and Tom followed with, “We want a great relationship with the new programs.”
Special Education staff members were specially excited by the chance to build a new program from the ground up, with significant family and community involvement. Three small programs are being merged into one at this site, with perhaps a total of 100 students of junior and senior high school age. In addition, The Lab, a creative arts program now housed at Homecroft School, relocates along with a special “Empowerment Team” that helps students develop the right mix of programs and activities they need. The new location has resources that were not available in the other locations — the theater stage, wood shop, lab rooms, space for music and art work.
With a high teacher to student ratio, the team intends to create a high interest, high activity, and hands on, service learning program to engage students in ways that help them connect to the wider community and learn skills that can lead to employment. Some possible community connections were discussed along these lines, where students could be involved in helping with community gardens, creating a playground for the school, or even working on some of the housing rehab work in the neighborhood and the West End in general.
Superintendant Silva values this program highly and the team feels it has her full support. For the neighborhood, they assured the group of direct involvement in planning and quick responses to any issues raised as the program develops. In turn, neighbors expressed a desire to have the superintendant attend one of these meetings. Opportunities for the neighborhood to get to know this program were discussed, and a neighborhood open house is planned for sometime in June to talk about the program. A community event later in the fall where neighbors, students and staff can interact is also possible.
Sarah Gleason summed up the consensus by saying, “I actually think there will be many more opportunities for partnership and for the school being an asset to our community than with a ‘typical’ school program. They are very focused on real world, active, purposeful learning and skill building (out of the classroom) and have much more flexibility as well as staff capacity for collaboration than most schools would have.”